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Ex-slave who helped Denver’s poor could become first saint from Colorado

A local investigation into the virtues of Julia Greeley, dead for 100 years, closes Friday and heads to Vatican

An icon of Julia Greeley written by Vivian Imbruglia, an iconographer from California commissioned by the Archdiocese of Denver. (Provided by the Archdiocese of Denver)
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A box bound in crimson ribbon and sealed with red wax soon will depart for the Vatican, carrying 7,500 pages of documents describing how Catholics still pray to a former slave who brought coal and food to poor Denver families in the cover of night.

To them, Julia Greeley is a saint.

If Pope Francis agrees, a black woman who risked her own safety to help the poor after she was freed from slavery would become the first saint presented by a Colorado diocese. But more significantly, Greeley, who died 100 years ago, is one of five African-Americans whose causes for canonization are now under consideration. There are no African-American saints in the Roman Catholic Church, though there are black saints from other nations.

For the past year and a half, the Archdiocese of Denver has gathered testimonials, historical records and newspaper clippings to document Greeley’s virtues.

The goal is to determine whether she is a saint “best as we can know this side of heaven,” said David Uebbing, chancellor of the archdiocese. Saints are people who’ve gone to heaven and are closer to God, which can make their prayers more effective, according to the church.

“People have been asking Greeley to pray for them for years,” said Uebbing, who, as vice postulator for Greeley’s cause, will personally carry the box of documents to the Vatican as required.

A church court heard the testimony of 25 witnesses, including some who said they were healed after praying to Greeley. Officials from the Archdiocese of Denver traveled to Hannibal, Missouri, where they scoured Census and land records to discover who once owned Greeley and her mother, and to find out where she lived when, at age 5, one of Greeley’s eyes was destroyed by a snap of a whip as her mother was being beaten.

And in another step on the path to sainthood, they exhumed Greeley’s remains from Mount Olivet Cemetery in Wheat Ridge and moved her bones to the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver last year. She was the first person ever entombed in the cathedral, where her bones were placed in a red, wooden box for viewing before they were sealed and moved to a corner of the sanctuary so her followers can more easily bring her their prayers.

Now the thousands of pages of documents are ready for the next phase in Greeley’s cause for canonization, or sainthood, which will take place in Rome. On Friday, the archdiocese will place three copies of the 7,500-page investigation into three boxes in a ceremony marking the end of the Denver phase.

Denver Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez blesses the exhumed bones during the Transfer of the Remains Ceremony for Servant of God Julia Greeley at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on June 7, 2017. (Provided by the Archdiocese of Denver)

Believers say praying to Greeley healed them, saved lives

Among the documents are testimonials from those who say praying to Greeley resulted in modern-day miracles.

One woman learned last year as she was pregnant with her eighth child that the baby had a mass in her abdomen and would require surgery in utero. Then a friend texted her a photograph of Greeley and promised to pray to Greeley on her behalf. Afterward, the woman reported, her baby’s tumor disappeared and the surgery was not needed.

Another woman, who learned in 2016 that she had a cancerous tumor growing in her pelvis, sent an email to friends and family and asked them to pray to Greeley on her behalf. The woman went through chemotherapy and planned to have a procedure to freeze the tumor, yet a scan just before the treatment revealed it was gone. “I believe I was miraculously healed with the help of Julia Greeley,” the woman told the Julia Greeley Guild, a group formed in 2011 to spread Greeley’s story.

Another believer credits “God, Julia Greeley or both” for her daughter’s recovery after drowning in a hotel pool.

None of the witnesses questioned by the archdiocese about Greeley’s virtues knew the woman, who died in 1918. But the church found people who were told about her “reputation of holiness in the community” going back 40 and 50 years, Uebbing said.

Greeley was poor, illiterate, blind in one eye

Greeley came to Denver to work as a housemaid for Gov. William Gilpin in the 1870s, following the Civil War. She later earned $10 to $12 per week doing people’s laundry and scrubbing floors, as well as sweeping and dusting the Sacred Heart church, where she attended.

Greeley was poor, illiterate, never married, and, by some descriptions, unattractive, with one eye that didn’t open and sometimes oozed.

“She didn’t seem to be in the least concerned about that,” said Father Blaine Burkey, who wrote a book about Greeley in 2012. “She was concerned about taking care of other people, and most were from the same race as her persecutor.”

As an old woman, her body riddled with arthritis, Greeley pulled a red wagon through the streets of Denver in the dark to bring coal and groceries to needy families, black and white. She went at night to spare white families who were ashamed to take charity from a poor black woman, the church’s research found.

This was despite that, in a time of deep racism and prejudice, it wasn’t considered safe for a black woman to walk alone at night.

One story passed down the generations recalls Greeley, who lived in north Denver near Walnut and 28th streets, walking through the darkness carrying a mattress on her back for someone who needed it. In another, she was bringing a stroller to a family with a baby.

Greeley was known to love children and babies in particular and spent much of her time caring for other people’s babies. She took groups of children on the trolley to the park and, when asked by the conductor, reportedly would reply, “These are my children.”

From testimonials of those who pray to Greeley, it’s clear many come with prayers regarding children — healing them or having them.

There is just one known photograph of Greeley, taken around 1916, and in it she is holding a baby.

The white girl in the photo, wearing a bonnet and propped on her hip, belonged to a Denver couple who employed Greeley scrubbing floors in their home near 47th Avenue and Hooker Street. Greeley asked the woman why they had no children. The woman replied that their son had died 11 years before because of a disease that prevented him from digesting food and that doctors told her she would not have more children.

“I’m going to pray and you will see there will be a little girl running around here next year,” Greeley said, according to Burkey.

“That’s the girl you see in the picture,” he said.

Presenting a black woman, ex-slave for sainthood “phenomenal”

Greeley also was known to walk miles across Denver each first Friday of the month to visit every fire station, where she would give firefighters pamphlets from Sacred Heart.

When she died in 1918, people streamed past her casket in north Denver’s Loyola chapel, no longer used by the Catholic church, for five hours.

“There have been good people, but how many people have there been that will risk their very selves for the sake of others?” asked Deacon Clarence McDavid, one of only three African-American deacons who have been ordained by the Archdiocese of Denver. “She did not promote how life had harmed her. Rather, she promoted how important it was to her to give life.”

McDavid noted the once-in-a-lifetime significance of presenting a person for sainthood. The fact that the person is a black woman, a former slave, is “phenomenal and unheard of,” he said.

A red wagon sits next to the stone placed at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Wheat Ridge, where Julia Greeley was originally buried. Her remains were exhumed and relocated to the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Colfax Avenue in Denver as part of the presentation for canonization. (Provided by the Archdiocese of Denver)

“There are things that go on all the time but they don’t necessarily happen in our lifetimes,” he said.

About 3 percent of Catholics in the Denver archdiocese are black. Nationally, the number of black Catholics has risen sightly in the last several years, according to the Pew Research Center.

McDavid first heard of Greeley when he was invited to a graveside ceremony several years ago. When he arrived, he found a group of people who already considered her a saint.

“There are people when they hear the Catholic Church has saints, they believe we are trying to make people who walked the face of the Earth gods, or make it as if their lives were perfect,” the deacon said. “No, what makes them saints is that they lived an imperfect life. They lived for the faith.”

McDavid was there, too, when Greeley’s remains were brought to the cathedral last year, to rest in a holy place. There was an energy among the crowd, a mixture of black, white and Latino people, McDavid recalled. Mothers were lifting up small children so they could peer at Greeley’s bones.

“It was exhilarating in one way, but there was such a feeling and such a tone of peace and calm,” he said. “I walked away very silent at the reverence. Can you imagine that a mother would lift her child to show them the bones?”

Two medically proven miracles are required for sainthood

After receiving the documents from Denver, the Vatican is expected to review the findings, though there is no set timeline. If the pope determines that Greeley lived a life of virtue, she will receive the title of “venerable Julia Greeley.” If a miracle is attributed to Greeley, and a medical inquiry determines no medical explanation is possible, she will receive the title of “blessed.”

Only after a second proven miracle would Greeley become a saint.

The whole process could take months or years.

“The type of miracle that Rome is going to want and the type of miracles that people believe have happened in their lives are two separate things,” Burkey said.

The documents compiled so far include testimonials about favors people believe they have received through praying to Greeley, but do not offer up any alleged miracles for investigation. Church leaders are reluctant to even discuss potential miracles before a medical investigation, which requires the assessments of two independent physicians.

Instead, the documents, which are not public, focus on Greeley’s life in the context of slavery in the United States and racism after the Civil War. They include testimonials gathered in the 1970s as well as historical background submitted by the Historical Commission.

Though church leaders acknowledged the importance of finally recognizing a black American saint, they said the church is not purposely seeking out African-American candidates. Greeley’s cause bubbled up grassroots, from a community that has kept her story alive for decades.

Presenting her as a saint to Pope Francis, who has worked to lift up marginalized people, is fitting, Uebbing said.

“I think you could say that the church is aware of its history of failing to treat African-Americans justly,” he said. “To be able to hold up somebody who comes from one of those minority communities as a person worthy of imitation would be a really good thing.”

For Mary Leisring, director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry at the Denver Archdiocese, Greeley’s virtues matter more than her ethnicity. That said, “it makes us all very proud being black and Catholic and to have someone being presented who walked the streets of Denver,” she said.

“People see her as an ordinary person that became extraordinary,” Leisring said. “It gives us all hope. It reminds us that we, too, can be holy. We can be extraordinary.”

Though Greeley could become the first saint from Denver, she is not the first person ever presented to the Vatican by the Denver Archdiocese.

In the late 1930s, the archdiocese completed its investigation into the virtues of Father Leo Heinrichs, a German-born Franciscan priest who was celebrating Mass in Denver when he was shot to death at St. Elizabeth in 1908. The documents on Heinrichs’ cause for canonization arrived in Rome just a few days before the start of World War II.

The German priest’s nomination was never reviewed by the Vatican.

This story first appeared in The Colorado Sun’s newsletter, The Sunriser. You can subscribe here: cosun.co/thesunriser